From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Experts Identify Persistent Problems with U.S. Ballot and Voting System Usability

With a globally significant USA election only days away, many are wondering if our voting systems will accurately count voter intentions. On the heels of widely reported problems in the 2000 and 2004 elections, Americans have reason to be concerned. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, forty-two percent of those surveyed said they were not confident that their votes could be "accurately cast and counted," up 15 percentage points from a similar poll conducted four years ago.

Early voting in some jurisdictions has already revealed problems, including annoyances like long lines, and deeper concerns like “computer glitches.” In Ergoweb’s home town of Park City, Utah, resident Mary Cook shared her early voting story. "I walked to the table and gave them my name, they put the card into the machine and it came up and said I had already voted. I had not already voted, that’s what I was there for was to vote." Other would-be voters report experiencing the same problem, which remains under investigation.

In a detailed article on voting system usability The Ergonomics Report™ writer Jennifer Anderson states: The record-setting turnout promises to exacerbate still-present turmoil in the nation’s voting system—a mish-mash of procedures, rules and regulations put together by individual states and counties. A human factors researcher who has been exploring kinks in electoral systems finds little to suggest the country’s election officials have learned from the "hanging chad" debacle in Broward County, Florida, in 2000. Those problems shook a nation’s faith in one of its most prized democratic institutions – elections.

Voting system usability — from the politicians, civil servants and volunteers who design and operate the polls, to the voters casting ballots — is of critical importance in the design and execution of an accurate, effective, and legitimate voting system. Ergonomists and human factors professionals are stepping forward to help.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) has just released an interview article highlighting problems and ways in which human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) research and methods could improve voting system usability. It may be too late to fix the problems that will no doubt surface in the current election, but voting system accuracy and usability deserves careful attention in any credible democratic system. In the HFES report, entitled “Human Factors Experts Identify Persistent Problems with U.S. Ballot and Voting System Usability,” five HF/E experts on voting systems respond to questions about ongoing human factors issues, challenges, research, and practice in this area. They conclude that although some progress has been made, much remains to be done to improve ballot and voting machine design and usability—and that HF/E research and application can be brought to bear to get that work done.

Excerpts from the report include:

There are known performance issues with the current machines, which stem primarily from a lack of proper feedback and poor instructions. (Bill Killam)

Many state laws [regarding ballot and voting system user interface design] include detailed design requirements that contradict good design practice. (Whitney Quesenbery)

Typical voter interactions happen one time every two or four years for a few minutes each. As a result, voters are not expected to gain any expertise, nor is it realistic to talk about training. (Douglas W. Jones)

Commenting on a 2004 NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) comprehensive 92-page report on human factors in voting systems, Mike Byrne observes, What is most striking about this report is that it references almost no data at all on the effects of different technologies on voting behavior. This is not because the authors failed to cite the relevant literature; there simply was no relevant literature to cite. There is no in principle reason that human factors research on voting systems could not have been done, it simply had not been.

Sources: The Ergonomics Report; HFES; The Park Record